Top five issues in agriculture

Monday, 30 January 2017 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Over the years chemicals have become an integral part of cultivation of our country’s agriculture



Many issues are discussed around the agriculture sector. Most of these issues can be broadly categorised into a few main issues. Many have written about these issues pretty much in isolation. However I believe that they have to be discussed together. Some of these issues need more research while some need actions based on already done scholarly work. At the same time there are some issues that need new approaches and significant efforts in terms of time, money and skills to get things changing. 

I am sure there are other issues that may qualify to be on the top of the list. I humbly acknowledge them all. The objective here is to point out the obvious and start a discussion so that policy makers would hopefully listen. To the extent possible I will try to provide recommendations to overcome these issues. These recommendations are reflections of the discussion with farmers, government institutes, private entities and academia. 

Use of chemicals

Over the years chemicals have become an integral part of cultivation of our country’s agriculture. However we are now increasing moving towards healthy and environmentally friendly organic/sustainable agriculture. It is still a debate whether recommended chemicals should be allowed or whether chemicals should be totally banned from agricultural fields. Advocates of organic agriculture are towards the total removal of chemicals from the agricultural fields. However others believe that the recommended chemicals and amounts should be used for agricultural purposes. 

I am a believer of organic agriculture therefore I support the implementation of fully organic practices. However it is important to realise the difficulties in practicing organic agriculture in the short-run. Hence a longer-term succession approach is needed. Let me take an example and illustrate.

I visited a successful bitter-gourd farmer who is in the export value chain. He is based in Chilaw. He cultivates around nine acres of bitter-gourds which is a significantly larger cultivation given the size of the particular value chain. His approach focuses on following the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards that aims at the European market. The GAP standards allow the recommended levels of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. It also allows any organic fertiliser and bio-pesticides as well. 

The export value chain is highly quality conscious. There are many pests and diseases that always loom around the fields and most of them are not responsive to bio-pesticides. It is a short duration crop hence fertiliser responsiveness is very important. Therefore for this value chain the chemical fertilisers and pesticides have become an essential element. Hence it is hard for the farmers to convert in to a fully organic mode in the short run. 

Transition to organic cultivation can only happen if efficient organic fertilisers and responsive bio-pesticides are developed at an affordable price. Such farmers need time to convert to fully organic. This particular value chain is interesting since it has tried to eliminate the over use of chemicals. The GAP standards make it mandatory that only the recommended chemicals are applied and there are ways to detect the overuse. If over use is detected the harvest will be rejected. 

Please note that I am in no way proposing or promoting chemical applications in agricultural value chains. I am simply pointing out that some value chains need time to give up chemical use given the nature of the of it. The biggest worry however is the overuse of chemicals. Fruits and vegetables that are available at local markets is a very good example. At the moment it is almost impossible to find fruits and vegetables that are not being showered by chemicals. 

To prove this to myself I visited several vegetable markets. To my surprise only a handful of such vegetables and fruits exist. Almost all vegetables and fruits are grown with overdose of chemicals. In another instance I talked to a vegetable farmer from Kurunegala and asked about his production details. I realised he has spent money on buying the same vegetable from another farmer for his own consumption. The reason for this act is that he has over used chemicals in his own cultivations therefore he does not wish to consume what he produces. Instead he buys from a farmer who does organic cultivations. Just imagine the harmfulness and the quality of agriculture produce when the grower himself does not wish to consume. 

I do not think this is new information. Many consumers who are buying these vegetables and fruits know the produce is harmful. Yet people buy because they don’t have alternatives. People who have access to farm fields that produce organic or only use recommended chemicals are better off. In my view practices such as overuse of chemicals are hard to control unless the market begins to respond to them with standards and prices. The only other way is to grow what you eat and become self sufficient to the extent possible. But how many have the time, space and motivation to do so is an important question. 

There has to be a control on using too much chemicals in agriculture produce. Ideally the monitoring has to be done by a reliable authority. What I can suggest is a government authority with the full powers to take decisions on farmer who overuse chemicals (I am not quite sure whether there is an existing government authority on this. Even if it exists, it does not seem to be doing a good job). Giving this to a private party might take away the visibility and might result in moral hazards. I believe monitoring and enforcements (the regulator), has to be a government institution. 

Uncoordinated production, fluctuating prices

Agriculture is a seasonal activity therefore it is natural to see ups and downs on the output prices; therefore most of the time we assume that these variations will be smoothened overtime. However when production is uncoordinated these fluctuations can bring hard times for farmers as well as consumers. It is very common to see over supply of agricultural produce over and over again. Oversupply happens because the production is not coordinated. 

It is important to understand what is the demand, where, when and what quantity. There will always be a possibility of oversupply unless this information is property transmitted to farmers.

It might not be possible to develop a crop plan for the whole country in the short run. Therefore crop plans need to be developed at least at provincial levels. When crop plans are developed at provincial levels it might be possible to see where each and every vegetable/crop is grown and demanded. This might looks like an overwhelming task. However this will be a productive investment. 

As a first step a baseline study has to be done to identify the crop mix, input demand, consumer demand and value chains at each province levels. Once that is done for each province it will be possible to map out where the supply should come from to meet the consumer demand. If correctly done it might be possible to project the future demands as well. It might also be possible to see how the demand and supply changes and the crop mix should evolve when facing climate change impacts and wheatear changes. 

IN-2I believe scientists have done enough research at micro level taking different crops as examples and sometimes even using secondary data on crop cultivations. These finding needs to be scaled up if possible and may be new data is essential. For example published research is there to show how farmers diversify their crop production plans with respect to climate change impacts using Ricardian approaches. These studies show how farmers make decisions on crop production and we need to take them a step further and develop sustainable regional/national plans. 

Published material argues that farmers are not considerate about the market demand and supply and they just cultivate what others are cultivating. There writings further suggest that the tendency to cultivate what others cultivate is one of the major reasons for over supply or under supply. These writing have also argued the inefficiencies in the government agricultural extension and instruction services to give proper advices to farmers. 

However my argument is different. In my view the main issue is the information asymmetry. Neither farmers nor the agriculture extension officers/instructors have enough information to decide on a crop mixture for a season for a given area. Most of the time they follow historical trends. For example there is a demand for ‘Capsicum’ in December for the vegetable farmers in Kurunegala district. However these trends changes with respect to many factors. 

Unless all information is available on the demand, supply from other areas and the prices a proper cultivation practice is impossible. When farmers from other districts and provinces see a prospect for ‘Capsicum’ from Kurunegala there is a pretty good chance that other will also start cultivating as long as their local conditions in terms of soil and rain/irrigation supports them. These things have to be taken in to consideration otherwise Capsicum will simple be oversupplied and the prices for farmers go down. 

The effects do not end there. If farmers see a price drop in one season there is a pretty good chance that they might give up cultivating Capsicum in the next season. That will lead to an undersupply and high prices for consumers. The only longer-term solution for this ‘wheel of unfortunate event’ is the information and development of coordinated crop plans. That can only be done through good research. 


Traceability is becoming an important component of the export value chain. It does not exist at all in the local value chains of our country. It is understandable since out local vegetable value chains are less complex and farmers are not in a position to invest in a traceability system. However export value chains should have a traceability system in place so that they can maximise their value chain efficiency and customers would be willing to pay a higher price. 

Less research has been done to look at the possible ways of introducing traceability in to export value chains. Important questions to ask are (1) comparative gains from installing a traceability system (2) level of information and communication technology (ICT) involvement and (3) who should invest in a traceability system (whether it is the producer or the buyer of the export oriented produce). I have written on this issue on a previous article as well. In my view traceability system will increase the customers’ willingness to pay and ICT has a great potential in making it a reality. However it is important to do more research to see how different ICT platforms would work with traceability. 

Issues with planting materials

Several things have to be in place for planting materials to realise its potential. In my view these are the prices, quality and access. Prices of planting materials are increasing reflecting the scarcity. Farmers used to producing their own planting materials. They still produce the seeds they want for crops such as paddy by sacrificing several seasons to develop the necessary stocks. This is a very common practice in organic agriculture where almost all the farmers produce seed paddy of the traditional paddy varieties. 

Producing seed is possible for paddy given the ability of seeds to produce the same quality plating materials over several seasons. However this is not the case with fruits and vegetables. The reason is because many fruits and vegetable value chains are based on hybrid seeds or plants develop by tissue culture technologies. Most of the time these seeds and plants are being imported and sold by private companies. 

Let me further explain this by taking two examples. I will select bitter gourds and snake gourds to represent seeds that are imported and sold by private sector and seeds that and propagated and sold by the department of agriculture. For the bitter gourds value chain the current demand is for the while colour variety as oppose to the green colour one (I am not using the scientific names for these varieties rather I am using the words that farmers use). 

During the field visits conducted in August last year, I noticed the price of a cane of seeds of the ‘while bitter gourd’ was around Rs. 2,300. A container of seeds would have 85-90 seeds. The price of the same seeds has gone up by Rs. 200-300 by last week. These seeds are imported and being sold to farmers by private entities. One might see this as a small increase, but this is a larger impact for a farmer who has invested in commercial cultivation. 

On average an export oriented bitter gourd farmer would put three seeds per hole and he would plant more than 1,000 such holes hence the price increase is significant. A farmer will not be able to harvest seeds from an existing cultivation since these are hybrid varieties. As informed by the farmers and the extension officers new seeds have to be purchased in order to maintain the desired characteristics of the harvest such as the length, colour and girth. 

On the other hand a farmer who cultivates snake gourds is able to harvest seeds from an existing cultivation that gives the same desired qualities. The snake gourd variety (TA-2) is being sold at the department of agriculture seeds centre at Kandy. The average price of a 1 kg of seeds here is between Rs. 3,000-3,500. Speaking to farmers I realised that the price of snake gourds have not gone up. This is mainly because the department has a vested interest in maintaining the price at an affordable level. 

Looking at these examples it is clear that the seeds that are being imported and sold by the private sector has the highest impact in terms of price increases. One way to address this issue is to develop hybrid varieties by department of agriculture and introduce them to the export value chains. One might argue that the department does not have enough research capacities to develop varieties that can match the performances of import varieties. 

I completely disagree with that proposition. Our agricultural scientists are more than capable of producing good seeds. They just need the necessary facilities in terms of laboratories and space for field experiments. 

The second important aspect is the quality of planting materials. Agricultural produce that is grown only for household consumption might not have to worry about the quality of the planting materials. For example, having home-grown ‘brinjals’ that are out of the regular shape would not be an issue for a household. A vegetable farmer might still be able to pull it off with low quality planting materials in a domestic vegetable market such as the ‘Sunday fair’. However quality is important to other markets.

Let me again take examples from bitter gourd and banana cultivations. A virus recently affected the bitter gourd export value chain. The disease wiped out cultivations of many farmers. This was prominent in the western province and many farmers suspect that it is an issue with the seeds. I was able to engage with most of these farmers over the last couple of weeks. The department of agriculture has collected seed samples from the farmers and findings points out the low quality of seeds. 

Some farmers were able to exchange the purchased seeds for fertiliser and other chemicals to partly cover the costs. The losses by such poor quality seeds are high. For example a farmer in the western province has loss around Rs. 150,000 to Rs. 200,000 per the last seasons. 

Another example is the popular upcoming banana varieties that are based on tissue culture. At the moment there are two main issues. Based on the information collected from the farmers (1) sellers of the planting materials have not delivered the promised planting materials leaving farmers with issues such as unused leased land and purchased fertiliser (2) banana once ripened was not suitable for storage and transport since the fruits tends to fall from the bunch very easily. 

Farmers mentioned that the plant material sellers apparently have mixed up the tissue culture samples. Hence they are not sure about the varieties anymore and are not in a position to sell. Also farmers were not aware that the ripened fruits would fall from the bunch easily. Many farmers in the Gampaha district could not sell what they cultivated because of this. On average a farmer loss around Rs. 200,000 in trying to cultivate the particular tissue cultured banana variety. Therefore such failures in terms of quality of the planting materials have the potential to create large losses to farmers. 

Access to planting materials is something that differs based on the crop. For some crops it is easy to find the necessary seeds or planting materials. For examples, finding planting material of vegetables that goes in the local value chain is relatively easy compared to the once that goes in the export value chain. Export value chains depend on specific varieties that are with unique qualities and only few organisations that manufacture or import them. 

However, my emphasis here is on the paddy since organic paddy cultivation is attracting a significant national attention. Finding traditional paddy seeds is a nightmare for farmers. Research has shown significant promise in doing organic paddy with new improved rice varieties. 

However traditional paddy brings in value addition. They bring in special characteristics in terms of health and resilience to climate change, which are broadly terms as ‘Ecological Goods and Services’ (EGSs). Though we had more than 2,000 traditional varieties many have vanished from our cultivation systems. Now we have only a handful of varieties that can be successfully grown and the seed production is not enough at all. Many farmers do not have sufficient access to these varieties. 

What can be done to eliminate the issues with planting materials? Government research institutes needs to start contributing more. It is important to increase their research capacities for them to have a productive output. If a private company is importing seeds and responsible for plants there has to be an accountability system. Either the seed company has to provide an assurance or a government institute must recommend. 

Climate change, natural disasters and crop insurance

Risk is a part and parcel of agriculture. It has always been there and will never go away. Therefore it is important that farmers have the capacity to understand, face and overcome. Climate change however has taken the rick in agriculture to a whole another level. I have written earlier on the crop insurance and we need private sector stepping in to action. The crop insurance program by the government sector was not successful due to many reasons and tying it to a fertiliser subsidy was one of the main reasons. 

Therefore what we need is an index (weather) based insurance system as oppose to the indemnity based systems we have at the moment. Natural disasters and climate change impacts are not something that can be entertained under a simple indemnity based system. 

Through my research work I have come to the conclusion that farmers are aware of climate change and the impacts of natural disasters. They might not use the term ‘climate change’ but they know that rainy seasons are changing, temperature is increasing and droughts and floods are becoming regular events. Therefore climate change adaptation and mitigation is very important. Farmers are already adapting however they need capacity building. 

Technologies are needed to adapt and this can be new technology or something that our ancestors practiced. Therefore scientific knowledge as well as the traditional or local knowledge has an important role to play. To make things easy the research finds are there. The climate change adaptation action plans are there.  We just need the actions implemented at national level. 

(The author is an agriculture and environment economist. He can be reached at [email protected] and 94 77 986 7007).

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